Board of Health changes mind, advises pilot TNR program

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Health made recommendations to the village Board of Trustees for implementing a pilot Trap-Neuter-Release program at the Dec. 14 trustees meeting, less than a year after the board advised trustees that TNR would not be in the best interests of the village.

Board Chairman Dr. David Pitman told the News-Record that the board agreed to reconsider TNR at the urging of the trustees and numerous residents who spoke out in favor of the program, which advocates claim is the most effective and humane way to control feral cat populations. As a result, the Board of Health announced at its Sept. 17 meeting that it would be forming an ad hoc committee — consisting of Animal Control Officer Melanie Troncone, Health Officer John Festa, board member Dean Kameros, People for Animals Executive Director Jane Guillaume and a resident in favor of TNR — to discuss how a TNR program could work in South Orange. The Board of Health devised its own suggestions after hearing the committee’s ideas.

And though he still has some reservations about TNR — namely the risk that people could contract rabies or toxoplasmosis from the cats, in addition to the ferals becoming a nuisance for neighbors — Pitman said he believes his board has come up with a pilot program that allows for TNR while also satisfying the BOH’s concerns.

“We felt there should be a TNR within limits,” Pitman said in a Dec. 17 phone interview.

First, the BOH’s proposed TNR program actually consists of TNVR — Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release, plus micro-chipping — which Pitman told the trustees will go a long way toward alleviating his group’s health concerns while still allowing TNR to take place. The chairman suggested that the designated cat-colony caretakers should pay for the costs of those measures, since the board does not feel that using cat licensing fees and private fundraising will be enough to cover those expenses.

Pitman also advised that residents should be notified as to whether a cat colony is situated near their homes so that anyone particularly vulnerable to feral cats, such as pregnant women, can make sure to avoid them. This measure was vehemently opposed by some members of the committee, who were concerned that caretakers would be targeted by TNR opponents or overwhelmed by people dumping cats on their properties, but he said it was important to the BOH to see it implemented to protect the well-being of neighbors. Also, Pitman pointed out that TNR advocates have previously stated that most neighbors react favorably to the program once informed of its benefits, so alerting people to a colony’s location should not be an issue.

Likewise, Pitman stressed to the trustees that colony records for a potential pilot TNR program should be kept by the South Orange Department of Health and available to the public. Pitman said that People for Animals, the animal rights group that has expressed a willingness to act as South Orange’s sponsor if TNR is implemented, also disagreed with this measure, wanting to instead hold the records privately. But the BOH said residents should have the right to see this information for themselves — that way those interested in moving to the village can be sure there are no colonies near the home they want to buy if they are opposed to TNR.

The Board of Health and People for Animals opinions also diverged when discussing the size of cat colonies. Guillaume had previously advised the BOH that there should be no size limit; otherwise, she said people would not comply with the program since they would have to choose which cats are going to be saved and which cats could possibly be euthanized at a shelter. But Pitman said the board did not want to allow unlimited colony sizes for fear that the number of cats on a particular property could get out of hand.

People for Animals previously estimated that South Orange has roughly 1,000 feral cats. The village has stated that it handles three to five complaints per month, though Furry Hearts Rescue, of Maplewood has said that it has taken in more than 100 cats from South Orange in 2015.

As a result, in his recommendation to the trustees, Pitman said that those applying to become caretakers should specify a maximum number of cats they can take in, an number to which they will be held. Pitman added that if a caretaker exceeds that number, the additional cats should be relocated to another colony that is within its limit. That way, he said shelters will be largely avoided.

As for complaints, Pitman urged the trustees to give People for Animals or any other sponsor they choose a maximum of 30 days to resolve all issues. If a complaint is not handled within that time period, it should be taken on by the animal control officer, he told the News-Record.

Guillaume previously suggested a 45-day limit, though People for Animals actually recommends a 60-day window. But the chairman told the trustees that waiting that length of time could have a detrimental impact on residents’ health and quality of life.

Overall, Pitman advised that any pilot TNR program initiated should be measured by an Oregon study that found that a 50-percent sterilization rate was consistent with colony stabilization while an 80-percent rate was consistent with colony maintenance. If the program could produce similar statistics, he told the News-Record, it would be beneficial for South Orange.

“That’s the goal,” Pitman said. “That would really be an effective tool in reducing the cat population.”

Village President Sheena Collum, who had pushed the Board of Health to reconsider TNR after its initial advice not to pursue TNR, told the News-Record that she was grateful to the board for revisiting the issue. Right now, however, she said there are no definite plans to proceed with a pilot program since the BOH’s recommendations are currently being evaluated by the trustees’ professional staff, who will brief the trustees on their findings “in the near future.” After that, she said the trustees will review the recommendations and discuss the matter among themselves.

Until then, Collum said it would be premature to consider how exactly a pilot program would be implemented or when one would be put in place. She said any program would have to address residents’ safety, costs, the impact on neighborhoods and the program’s ability to reduce the cat population in the most humane way.

Although no pilot has been confirmed, Collum said that it appears TNR could help South Orange, as the program has had results in other towns.

“South Orange is one of many communities right now that are evaluating a TNVR program, and data suggests that the program can be effective in controlling and reducing the feral cat population,” Collum said in a Dec. 21 email. “We’re doing our best to take the time to understand the issues, how we can achieve our goals and how we can learn from other towns on what the best practices are and how to overcome challenges.”

Complicating matters, there is no guarantee that the Board of Health will even exist by the time a pilot TNR program were to be implemented. During his address to the trustees, Pitman mentioned that Collum had informed him the Board of Health will be disbanded effective Jan. 1. This is the reason the board presented its proposed TNR pilot as recommended measures rather than passing an ordinance.

Speaking to the News-Record, Pitman said he had not heard anything further as to whether the board will definitely be eliminated upon the new year. In fact, he said the board members even set meeting dates and elected Kameros as the new chairman for 2016 during their Dec. 17 meeting, just in case the board is actually not dissolved.

Collum said the Board of Trustees is currently considering disbanding the Board of Health in 2016 so that the trustees can assume its responsibilities. She said the reason for this is that it does not make much sense to have two separate boards and an administrative staff to oversee a health officer and an animal control officer, especially when negotiating shared services agreements with other towns. It will be more practical for the trustees to handle the board’s duties, as the Township Committee does in Maplewood, she said.

Yet for Pitman, who intends to exit the board at the start of the new year, regardless of what happens, disbanding the Board of Health is a bit disheartening. He recalled that the board has always gathered intelligent residents with all types of medical backgrounds to use their expertise to benefit the community.

Though he knows that he and some other board members would be willing to offer guidance to the trustees if needed, he feels not having a permanent board will leave a void in the village.

“I think that the South Orange Board of Health has done a great job at making sure the Department of Health has been responsive to the health needs of our town,” Pitman said. “But this is a trustee decision and it’s out of our hands.”